It’s really easy to feel like you’re not making progress. All too often we measure progress in the form of hitting goals. When we miss those goals it is seen as a failure. It doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, that feeling is the same whether you’re a writer, an athlete, or a businesswoman. When you fall short of that goal it can hit you hard and leave you reeling. Some people never recover from that.
I want to suggest an alternative to setting goals when working toward an end.
Now don’t start commenting about the end being a goal. I promise we’ll come back to that before the end of this post. So sit back and hear me out. Once I’m done you can let me have it in the comments and I’ll read every one of them.
The Trap of Targets
Now I will fully admit that I am pretty goal driven. I grew up that way. Aim for a target and hit it. I still fall into that pattern for most of my life. At work, I have to hit those metrics. At home, I have to get those chores done. When I’m writing, I have to hit that word count. Editing? Got to finish that chapter.
Goals feel tangible. You can point at that goal when you are done and say, “I did that. I succeeded.” It feels good. Those endorphins kick in and we love it. We want more of it. We can hardly wait to feel it again. So we set ourselves some new goals and start the cycle all over.
It’s a trap.
Each goal is further away and harder to reach than the last. Success is like a drug, and like drugs, you need a little more each time to feel that high. If you set that goal to write a thousand words and make it, the next time it needs to be fifteen hundred so you get that same sense of accomplishment. How long can you keep stretching until you break?
As good as hitting that goal feels, no matter what it is, missing it feels so much worse. And we all miss a goal from time to time. Some of us handle it better than others and that can change from day to day. I know that for me there are a number of factors that affect my reaction. Was work hard? Did I have a fight with my wife? Did one of the dogs eat a pillow? Did I nick myself shaving? All of that and more can make that reaction worse. If I’m being honest, the positive items have much less of a positive impact than the negative items have a negative impact. I think that’s human nature.
So if goals are the trap, what is the alternative?
A Lesson Learned
One year after I failed to hit the fifty-thousand word goal for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I started that downward spiral. Failed again. Maybe I should give up on writing. I’m not good enough. I was there, the precipice we all look over and have to decide what comes next. It would have been all too easy to just step into the abyss and give it all up.
Instead of taking that step, I decided to look at what I did right and what I did wrong. How can I do better the next year? While there were a lot of factors and a number of steps I took to be successful, the biggest takeaway for me was the fallacy of the goal.
When you do NaNoWriMo you have a daily goal of 1,667 words in order to hit 50,000 words by the end of thirty days. I would drive myself crazy trying to hit that number and when I failed the pressure was even greater the next day. It doesn’t take long before you’re a whole day behind and then a week or more. Only 5-10% of the people that try to do NaNoWriMo finish successfully. Most people I have talked to get overwhelmed trying to hit that daily number, get frustrated, and bale on the whole process.
Those little daily failures are morale breakers, especially for a new writer trying NaNoWriMo for the first time. If there was self-doubt before then they are definitely feeling it now. I wonder how many people give up that dream of writing after flaming out in NaNoWriMo.
Now I want to be clear: I love NaNoWriMo There is a great community built around it and if a new participant is willing to listen and learn they will come away better for trying, even if they do not succeed. I have done NaNoWriMo about six times. I successfully completed it once. That is 17% success rate. Not great, but I am still proud of that one year I did it.
So what was the difference and why does it matter here?
Progress Not Perfection
There were a number of changes I made that helped. Those changes were mostly centered on planning and I cannot stress enough how important planning is to success with NaNoWriMo. I had planned before and still failed and I’ll share my method for that later. Where I think the difference happened is in my ignoring that daily word count goal.
Rather than tracking my progress in tidy little one day blocks, I gave up on it altogether and focused my efforts on getting the story written. I knew I had to spend time writing every day to have a hope of getting it all down in time to successfully complete NaNoWriMo (Yes, it was a goal. Yes, I’ll address it. Calm down.), and the weekend was where the real work would get done. Like most writers, I have a day job, so I only got two or three hours a night to spend on writing. On the weekend I could spend longer stretches of time working on it for obvious reasons.
Day after day I sat at the computer and typed like a madman until it was time to go to bed. Some nights I sat staring at the screen, unsure of how to translate my notes into a story worth reading. Weekend makeup time was lost because your time is never really your own if you have a spouse and kids. Of course, I had a rough idea of how I was doing relative to that pesky daily goal figure, but I never did the math and figured out just how far behind or ahead I was.
Thanksgiving weekend is my gut check for NaNoWriMo. It’s a four day weekend for me, but usually pretty unproductive because of visiting family. I looked at my word count and my notes and decided I could do it. I might have to speed it up a little because I was running out of days, but I made it further than I ever had before. It wasn’t that I was working any harder than usual, but I was not stressing about how much I was writing on any given day. Maybe this is a sign of becoming a more mature writer, but I’m inclined to think it’s the change in my brain game that made the difference.
I went on to finish the event successfully (by a very narrow margin I might note), and it felt amazing to finally do it. I deconstructed what worked and what didn’t so I could improve my process for the next year. As I said before, I only completed it once and this was it.
I went back to the goal oriented approach the next year because I was working on a separate novel before it started so I wanted to dedicate just enough time to NaNoWriMo to meet that daily goal so I could focus more on the other work. A week and a half in I was multiple days behind and bailed straight out of the event. Was I trying to do too much? Probably, but I still think the return to goal oriented writing demoralized me and set me back in a big way.
So why was completing NaNoWriMo not a goal? In a way it was. There is no getting away from saying that NaNoWriMo sets a target for you to aim for, but it is how you treat it that matters.
Setting out to do NaNoWriMo I did not focus on that number. Frankly, I wanted to blow right past that number. I wanted to keep going well past NaNoWriMo. Despite my barely making it, I was not done with the story, so I kept on writing rather than taking the win and calling it a day. That is where I can find myself today.
Rather than measuring progress with some arbitrary goal, I measure progress by making progress.
Whether you reach 2000 words or 100 words, it’s still progress moving forward. If you can keep moving forward, you will reach the end of your project in the time you were meant to; no artificial deadlines required. The point is to make progress, no matter how small.
I have spent an evening staring at my computer screen trying to fix one sentence that I couldn’t get right until I do. There are other times when I sit down to work and write 2000 words. It feels amazing when you can be so productive. What connects these two is that I have made progress, and that is what matters. I don’t put pressure on myself by setting those artificial goals and I’m happier for it. That really is the key to this approach. If you enjoy the work rather than dreading goals you have set for yourself, you’ll do better, more consistent, work.
Alright, you’ve heard my story and you’ve heard my message. I hope it gives you something to think about. If you give it a try, I would love to hear from you.
How about you? Do you set goals? Have you abandoned them? What do you use for motivation?